Spotting at NAS Oceana. Off Season Practice and Entertainment. By Steven Lewis
Most of us have been infected with Aviation Photography someway or another. If it from going to air shows or even by looking at images from the professionals like Tyson Rininger, Chad Thomas, Kevin Jackson and Mike Jorgensen, all repeatedly produce beautiful and stunning photos. Practice makes perfect. So how can someone practice aviation photography? Spotting! Yes, sitting at the end of a taxiway or runway, taking pictures of the movement of aircraft around the airport. It could be your local airport or a military base near by. Spotting offers a great opportunity to try out new techniques, to further develop your skills, or experiment with shots that you may not normally take at an airshow. My most recent spotting trip was to the U.S. Navy’s major East-Coast fighter base, NAS Oceana. What was once Tomcat territory is now a Hornet’s nest, a hive of Naval fighter activity. Here are a few tips I have used that help me and could help you on your next spotting trip.
First off, determine your location. Where do you want to go? Will it be a Military base or a commercial airport? Will you shoot locally or out of state [or country]? Basically, you are looking for a first-class shooting location. The last thing you want to do is to travel to some base or airport and find nowhere to shoot from. Or even worse, you get there and you are shooting into the sun all day long. Location and research are probably the two most related subjects. I will explain research in more detail below. Once you have figured out where it is you want to go, it’s time to do determine your subject and set some goals.
During this time it is important to decide on your subject and set some goals for yourself. What is it you want to shoot? Is it an airliner with special livery, or a USN CAG aircraft? One thing to consider is that not all the same aircraft fly everyday. One may fly one day and break down or have a leak of some sort and may not fly until the end of the week. Are you trying to re-create a shot you have seen online or in a magazine that you want to get for yourself? Maybe during the air show season, you had a problem panning or centering your subjects and want to take the time to practice your techniques. What ever your desire may be, spotting offers a great opportunity to shoot aircraft in a “predictable flight path”. “Predictable”, meaning no surprises, essentially, you know what direction the aircraft are coming from. So, “How does one know what direction aircraft are taking off and landing from and how do I pick a good spotting location?” By doing a little bit of research.
Research may take awhile, but it will be rewarding in the long run. Your research topics could be: How many runways does the air field have? Which directions do they run? When is the best time and place to spot from? Can you spot there? All are good thing to know before traveling to a spotting destination. Look online, post questions on forums, Get a map of the area, and try to find other who has gone where you want to go. Most likely someone has tried what you are trying to do. No luck there, try calling the airport or air base and ask is there any viewing locations around the airfield to take picture from. It never hurts to ask.
Another very important factor in your research will be the weather. Mainly, the sun’s location and the wind patterns you need to be concerned about. First off you have to know the orientation of the runways and if there are any locations to shoot from near the ends of the runway. Once you know the runway orientation, you can then determine what wind direction is needed to use what runway. Winds do not blow the same direction all the time. How does thing this effect you and spotting? Let’s say you wanted to shoot fighters landing at NAS Super Base (somewhere, USA) and this base had a runway that ran from the southwest to the northeast. The day you are there, the winds are out of the south in the morning, then forecast switch to the north in the afternoon. The best spot to shoot from would be around the northern end of the runway in the morning and once the winds switch you would have to move to the southern end in the afternoon. Try to find spot on both ends of the runway (s) to spot from. Don’t think you’re going to find one great “shoot all” spot and get all the shots you were after in one day! Be prepared for bad weather, for yourself and your gear. Watch the local weather and be aware of approaching storm systems. Heaven forbid you find yourself shooting in a location and it starts to storm and your car or shelter is not close by. If you know that there is a chance of bad weather, be sure to protect yourself and your equipment from the elements. Dress for the weather, don’t under dress if it going to cold as well as don’t over dress if it going to be warm.
Remember, not every shot you shoot will be in focus and razor sharp. If you have the time, try to plan multiple trips, one in the morning, one mid-day, and one in the afternoon. The first trip, in the morning, if flight-ops have begun, the morning light is great with nice long shadows. But don’t shoot there all day, stop and look for a place to shoot from in mid-day and also places to shoot in the afternoon. Maybe you will find a different or even a better location. You add variety by shooting from different locations. Variety helps if you are going to be shooting the same type of aircraft over and over again. But if you can only find one location to shoot from, make the best of your time! I managed to find two great but similar locations to shoot from around NAS Oceana.
Most importantly, use common sense! Be respectful of the law and show respect to those who enforce it. If the police show up, don’t be stupid and cocky. That will ruin your trip real fast. Cooperate with the authorities. Before heading out, make sure all your batteries are charge and memory cards have free space and/or you have enough film to last you for a few hours. Last but not least, bring a friend, share the experience.
I would like to thank my good friend Shawn Yost for helping me prepare this article.
Equipment use: Canon EOS 20D Canon Telephoto EF 400 mm f/5.6L USM Lens All pictures were resized for the web. All pictures taken by: Steven Far148 Lewis All pictures are protected by US copyright.